Do not attempt to lose weight following surgery.
The recovery time from spine surgery is not the time for cutting calories; it’s a time for increasing them. The days, weeks and months after surgery are not only a time for your spine to heal—it’s a time when your entire body goes through the recovery process. The progression is generally slow, but a high-quality diet can help ensure a smoother and speedier healing process.
It’s normal to feel nauseous during the first few days following surgery. Coming out of anesthesia and starting pain medications can kill your appetite, but that’s not a terrible thing because it gives your gastrointestinal tract time to get back on track. (The first good sign that your digestive system is starting to work properly, though a little embarrassing, is being able to pass gas.) If your recovery begins in the hospital, your medical team will gradually transition you from a clear liquid diet that is easy to absorb and doesn’t overstimulate the intestines, to a soft diet, and then to solid food.
Nutrient-rich shakes sold at most grocery stores can help you get the nutrition and calories you need if your appetite doesn’t return within a few days (see more about shakes, slide #5). By the time you leave the hospital, you should be ready to eat normal meals. As you prepare to go home, someone on your medical team will provide you with specific meal planning advice.
Eat more calories—but make them quality calories.
After spine surgery, your metabolism increases with the need to heal, so your body needs extra calories—about twice as many as usual—for proper recovery. And it’s important that these extra calories come from healthy foods like grains, legumes and fresh fruits and vegetables. Such foods help provide your body with the extra vitamin C and other nutrients it needs for wound healing and recovery.
Eating well-balanced meals can also help to lessen the risk of infection following surgery. Some nutrients, including vitamin C, zinc and vitamin A, are especially helpful in fighting off infections. Foods rich in vitamin C include: citrus fruits, strawberries, tomatoes, greens and cabbage. Vitamin A can be found in: carrots, potatoes, spinach and broccoli, milk, cheese, liver and egg yolks. Seafood, oysters, meat and liver are all rich sources of zinc.
Protein helps with tissue repair and re-growth so put more protein on your plate.
Eating a high-protein diet is also very helpful as protein is the key nutrient required for healing after surgery. Be sure that a good portion of your extra calories come from meats—90% lean or higher—poultry and fish, eggs, tofu, and other high-quality protein foods.
Low-fat dairy products are another good source of protein that also provides the calcium and vitamin D you need for bone restoration. High-protein foods tend to be high in zinc, which is essential for fighting infection. Kidney beans, lentils, chick peas, nuts and seeds also contain protein so keep those sources of this important nutrient in mind as you plan your meals.
Eat small meals, more often.
Instead of three big meals, eat four to six smaller, well-balanced “mini meals,” spaced throughout the day. You may find eating in this manner is easier on your digestive system, especially when increasing your calorie intake.
Before surgery stock up on healthy, low-preparation foods so reaching for healthy calories is convenient. Some examples: fresh fruit, yogurt, instant pudding, canned tuna, canned or instant soups, shredded cheese and instant cereals.
Favorite fruit not in season? Head over to the frozen-food aisle. Believe it or not, frozen foods are often more nutritious than fresh ones because they are generally harvested near the peak of their ripeness and quickly frozen instead of picked prematurely and allowed to ripen during shipment. Canned food, on the other hand, can reduce some of the nutrients but canned food is still a good option.
Supplemental shakes can be an easy way to add variety and nutrition to your diet.
Smoothies and shakes are a good way to boost both calories and protein in your post-op diet. Make them yourself with a milk, soy milk, yogurt, or another high-protein food or beverage as the base, or buy prepared shakes in the supermarket or drugstore that are specifically designed to boost calories and protein. You can try most any ready-to-drink protein shakes, such as LuckyFit Complete Protein, even if they are marketed as weight loss products, because for you, they will supply extra calories, protein and other essential nutrients.
Or you can supplement your diet with high-protein powders, such as Nature’s Bounty Optimal Solutions or even “instant breakfast” powders such as Carnation Essentials, that are stirred into milk or other beverages.
Be sure to speak with your doctor or dietitian about the specific types of shakes and smoothies you’d like to use to supplement your diet, in case there are any counter indications from other supplements you may already be taking.
Vitamins and mineral supplements may be recommended but don’t overdo it.
Your surgeon may recommend some vitamin and mineral supplements, and possibly other dietary supplements that may help promote healing. Be sure to let your doctor know about any supplements you routinely take, and get your doctor’s approval before you take any new supplements during your recovery.
Keep in mind the best source of vitamins and minerals is food but during recovery from surgery, your doctor may suggest a supplement. High doses of nutrients can be harmful though, and they can interfere with the action of other supplements or medications you may be taking, so don’t get caught up in thinking that more of a nutrient is better for you than the amount that is recommended.
Water and Fiber
If your pain medication leaves you constipated, the first most important thing to do is make sure you are drinking plenty of water throughout the day. Drinking plenty of water is essential to help alleviate painful constipation as well as your body’s overall healing.
Water helps to flush out toxins and carries nutrients to your cells. Lack of water can also lead to dehydration, which can trigger headaches and fatigue. So, don’t wait until you are thirsty to down a glass of aqua. Keep a bottle of water or a full glass nearby to remind you to keep drinking throughout the day.
Eating plenty of high-fiber foods such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables helps a great deal, too. You can also get a natural laxative effect from drinking prune juice or eating prunes (dried plums). (Hint: If you don’t care for prune juice, try adding a squeeze of lemon juice to it!)
If you have trouble following your post-op meal plan or have questions about food or supplements at any time, contact your surgeon’s office or the hospital dietitian.
Although many people may undergo the same type of spine surgery, each patient has different needs before and after surgery. Therefore, at a regular follow-up appointment, you should ask how you can best manage your meal plan for optimum health.